“Where’s the cow?” asked Pestonjee.
“The cow?” the junior officer responded.
“Yes, what else?”
“Oh, the cow.”
“I told you, two days ago.”
“Yes. I didn’t forget. By this eve – “
“No, not evening. By noon, in the lobby.”
“I thought he was joking,” muttered the officer, returning to his desk.
“A cow?” Banerjee responded.
“A real cow?”
The officer looked around and spotted Natwarlal sitting on his rickety stool, leisurely picking his nose. “Natwarlal!”
“Where can we can find a cow?”
“A cow, a real cow, a cow with two horns and four legs.”
“Sir. My uncle in the village – “
“I can ask at the dairy. By tomorrow morning – “
“I want a cow now.”
“Sir, I have to file this paper, and then there is the mail to collect, and then deal with my brother. They have raised his rent again. Demolitions have begun. He is being evi — “
Turning towards Banerjee, the officer said, “Banerjee, will you come with me?” Banerjee rose involuntarily.
Halfway down the stairs, Natwarlal saw Battisi, the cleaner, walking up counting who knows what with his fingers. Natwarlal grabbed his hand.
“Do you know Sinhasan Battisi?” Battisi would say when asked about his unusual name – Sinhasan Battisi were the thirty-two parables of King Vikramaditya. But the moment the cleaner opened his mouth, it became evident that he was called “Battisi” not because of some king from the past but because of his own thirty-two teeth. Each one of them could hold a story. When he smiled the room lit up.
“Daant hain ya motiyon ka haar! (Are these teeth or a garland of pearls!)“
When he was a boy, Battisi would smile hesitantly, but now he had come to terms with his dental endowment. There were days when he did not smile but that was because he was cautioned more than once.
“Dhak kar rakha karo, nahin to nazar lag jayegi (Keep them under wraps, or someone will cast an evil eye).”
Today, he didn’t seem to care about his new found direction and now there were four of them; the junior officer, Banerjee, Natwarlal and Battisi, who had stepped out of Metro House looking for a cow.
The men turned left on Causeway without waiting to coordinate. They knew where the cows were at that hour. The blazing noon sun overwhelmed them all.
“I always see two cows here, every day. Is today a holiday?” the officer asked.
“They must be at the fair,” Natwarlal responded. “Did you go?”
“No, I was there last year.”
“Let’s look by the station.”
“I have to balance the ledgers today. Mr Pestonjee said it was urgent,” said Banerjee, his legs already moving in the opposite direction.
“This cow business is also for Pestonjee and it’s due by noon,” said the officer.
“Yes, hmm...No, no. See you at lunch.”
The remaining three men continued their journey. Natwarlal glanced back periodically, then looked up at the sky and then the officer. Twice, when the officer had looked his way for no reason other than the variation in their pace, Natwarlal would vigorously wipe sweat off his brow. Unlike Banerjee, he was in no position to excuse himself.
Half an hour later, despite her many manifestations – cow milk, cow curd, cow butter, cow leather, cow dung, cow paintings, cow murals, cow sculptures, a cow temple, shops named after cows, conversations about cows, a cow cart without a cow, and a man standing on one leg, hands together, chanting “cow, cow, cow,” repeatedly – the animal in its whole earthly form was not to be seen. A dozen or so people had assembled around the man standing on one leg. Inquiries indicated he had been in that position for eight months, nine days and five hours.
“Ha! Who cares!” scoffed the officer. “There are many such men standing on every street in Varanasi. Some on their heads. My uncle at the temple told us about an old man who has been walking on his hands since he was six.”
In matters of religion, the city of Varanasi attracted comparisons in the superlative.
If there was a priest somewhere who had married a woman to a tree, in Varanasi, there were priests who specialised in tree horoscopes. If there was a priest somewhere who could perform a six-hour wedding recital by rote, in Varanasi there were priests who could undo weddings by conducting the same recital in reverse, word by word.
If there was a priest somewhere who could conduct an exorcism, in Varanasi there were priests who could transform a human, usually a woman, into a ghost, or clouds, or free- floating atoms, or whatever else, depending on the scientific disposition of the client, along with her jewellery. One entrepreneurial priest transformed a devout cow profiteer’s gold necklace into sound waves that travelled to heaven and retransformed to gold on the neck of his client’s deceased grandmother.
The profiteer had sold ten healthy cows to the local Muslim butcher much to the dismay of his bedridden grandmother. She passed away the next day.
“A single cow will not appease her,” the priest responded to the cow profiteer’s offer to sacrifice a cow. “She calls out for her gold necklace.” The necklace was a family heirloom. The cow profiteer sought a second opinion.
“Who ever heard of an old grandmother call out from heaven?” advised the reformed Hindu preacher.
“Ignore him. What can you expect from a Brahmo? He won’t hear even if god calls,” the priest retaliated.
The matter was finally taken to a senior priest in Varanasi, who, with substantial effort—two full days and three assistants—accomplished the feat. The gold necklace was transmigrated.
The profiteer wondered, in private, whether heaven was the right address for his grandmother. The old woman had given up many norms of propriety and sobriety in her last few years. Her language was interspersed with invented and classical abuses.
She had accumulated a substantial debt with the local bootlegger. It began with tobacco. The doctor recommended that she rub it on her inflamed gums. It worked too well. The pain subsided in a week. As a preventive measure, she continued her treatment. A few weeks later, she had doubled the dosage and added some country liquor. This cocktail persisted with her until her last day.
Excerpted with permission from Cow And Company, Parashar Kulkarni, Penguin India.